How I Learned that Racism is Real

The problem with racism is that it's not a problem. Correction: for many white people it's not. For various reasons, we never have to think about it, we are rarely confronted with it. Therefore it doesn't exist. But the other problem with racism is that it does exist. And it's still tearing our nation apart. Here's how I became convinced.

this book was my eureka moment
Growing up in a completely white Upper Peninsula, racism was as foreign as black people. We are as diverse as a hockey team.  Yet oddly, even though none of us actually knew a black person, judging by the way we talked, there was plenty of racism going on. The N-word was used frequently and jokingly - old people and young. In high school, black jokes were on the level of 'yo mamma' jokes and a favorite pass time. This is called demonizing the Other; hating what you don't understand. It's a dangerous form of 'passive' racism. Still, by the time I left for college, I didn't give it much thought. If someone asked me about racism, I may have said that racism was overcome by Martin Luther King or something textbook like that. Correction: I actually did know one black man in Menominee. I actually had hung out with him on several occasions, but partly because he bought us beer. Still, perhaps having this initial connection started everything for me.

In college I took an African American Literature class, perhaps by accident. I read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston. The scales began to fall off my eyes. I began to experience the world as a black person in history. I became interested in Martin Luther King Jr. I fell in love with his teachings, his writings, his speeches, his life and martyrdom. I listened to the "Mountaintop" speech completely enthralled, emotional, heart pounding. But still, I was studying the past. I was only half way there. I had the historical context, but now I needed to start interpreting current events in the light of past events.

Then, I found myself watching the inauguration of Barack Obama in tears. It takes a lot for me to cry, but the historical, symbolic and real significance of the situation was overwhelming.

What really brought me to the precipice - my eureka moment, the tipping point - was reading the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This book is heavily based on facts and statistics, from an author who was skeptical to begin with. The statistics regarding black men and prisons blew my mind. It brought everything together. Other books followed. Racism is institutional, widespread, and debilitating for millions and millions of Americans every single day. It's no person's fault and it's every persons' fault. The truth had set me free and it didn't look good.

Now I witness events like Ferguson and Eric Garner and I understand. Racism is a complex thing, but once you understand it, you see it in the big places and in the small places. It's a disease that has many symptoms. The choking of Eric Garner without consequences is a symptom of a much larger problem. There is no doubt that we have made meaningful progress, but there is more to be done. I'm not going to talk about solutions here, but I will say this: white people and black people (and Muslim people and minorities) need to connect on a massive scale. We need to live together, work together, worship together, share power together. We never integrated.

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